Taoists are sass-monkeys. There’s a misconception that spiritual people are always wise, aloof, subdued. There is something to be said for the wisdom of being able to see the humour in things; and being able to talk smack to those still talking themselves too seriously. This whole chapter is a comparison of “regular folk” and what it means to be immersed in the Tao.
Other people are bright;
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp:
I alone am dull.
Other people have purpose;
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.
Now, if you put that on a resume, you wouldn’t get a lot of call backs, and that’s kinda the point. Lao Tzu is making fun of what people value, what they think is important, in part perhaps to illustrate that a pursuit of the Tao is not an ego-driven thing, most people will not admire you for it. I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.
But he’s trying to help you. The chapter opens with: Stop thinking, and end your problems (pausing while all my nerd readers get their gruntles on for that one!). Again, our clever little monkey minds are not the be-all and end-all, and there are places it can’t take you; this is one. Stop thinking and just start being, then there are no problems, just things to do or not-do.
I struggle with this more than I’d like to admit. I’ve actually done a pretty decent job of attaining “aimless idiot” but I still get sucked in to external measures of who I am. Must you value what others value? Yeah, sometimes I do, then I realize it makes me unhappy and I shake it off [great conversation on this struggle in Gratitude Through Gritted Teeth, worth a read if you want more]. It’s hard, wanting something different from what others want, there’s a sense of alienation in that, and this chapter sparks that feeling in me.
I’ve a tattoo on my shoulder of a seagull, it’s there to remind me of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a fable about a seagull spending his life practising flight, even though all the other seagulls scorn him for not fighting after food and garbage like the rest of them. It reminds me I’m not alone in wanting something different for my life.
And Lao Tzu with repeated lines of “I alone” calls out that fear of isolation, and then, in his sassy way says to me something along the lines of: Yes, my little weirdo, but did you really want to be chasing trash with the masses? The chapter ends with: I am different from ordinary people. I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts. Which reminds me, I seek this because it nourishes me in ways nothing else can.